Teaching Brevity: Deesha Philyaw’s “Milk for Free”

May 18, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Emily Dillon

When The Best of Brevity launched on the East Coast in November 2020, Deesha Philyaw was one of three authors to participate in its inaugural reading, alongside Lori Jakiela and Julie Hakim Azzam. I was not familiar with Philyaw’s writing, but during her reading I was impressed with her precision of language. In particular, her essay “Milk for Free”—originally published in Brevity’s “Experiences of Gender” issue in 2015—stuck out as unflinching and compelling in its look at how women often don’t own their own bodies. I wasn’t the only listener to feel that way. Both Hakim Azzam and Jakiela were moved to share similar stories of gendered violence before the night ended.

How serendipitous that only two weeks after that reading, a friend asked for my address to send me Philyaw’s newest collection of short stories The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. I just had to read it, he said, and he was right. It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed Philyaw’s collection, but I suspect you already know its successes well: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies won the 2020/2021 Story Prize and was a finalist for both the 2020 National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award. For me though, the real joy was returning to “Milk for Free” with the short story collection forefront in my mind, seeing anew how Philyaw built deft characterizations and imagination into the essay as she did the short stories. I realized then, too, that there was a unique shimmering to her nonfiction that was distinct from the fiction collection, each moment searing because I knew that it had happened–it had happened to young Deesha.

And what happened to her? Philyaw lets us in to the revelation slowly in “Milk for Free,” preferring ambiguous language for most of the essay: “some white stuff,” “down there,” “things below the waist,” “the men sometimes gave her money,” “big for my age,” and “what he did to her.” It isn’t until the penultimate moment of the essay—the spot in poetry where the volta would be—that Philyaw pivots into naming: “There is a word for this. Rape.” Though the rape is her mother’s and not her own, Philyaw still has to peel this revelation out of herself, conjuring the naming out of the ambiguous with imperative tense, said perhaps to herself, perhaps to the reader: “Go back, way, way back… the memory comes back, and here it is.” The violence enacted on her mother has violated her as well, which becomes most clear when she faces her own fear of men and realizes, “No one can protect me. If Shorty Hall doesn’t rape me, it’ll be because he chooses not to.” Men own her body, even if they choose not to act on that ownership.

This theme of ownership and commodification is doubly clear when looking at the essay’s structure as a whole. Philyaw sets off each memory—of her mother’s rape, of the old women’s advice to her not to “give away the milk for free,” of her sixth-grade friend’s sexual encounters with “grown men”—with the word “Item” and a colon. Bringing to mind a shopping list or a bill of sale, this listing structure is Philyaw’s way of emphasizing the commodification of her body and that of her friends and family. The theme takes on additional universality through the associative leaps that she inserts into the list: the item of Mick Jagger singing “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night…” and the item of Stokely Carmichael saying that the only position for women in the Black Power Movement is “prone.” These leaps, which move beyond her own experience into public celebrity, expose the origins of her personal violence and the wide-reaching impact of sexism, racism, and poverty in American culture.

Of course, these themes and their relationship to craft are essential for the American creative writing classroom. Because this essay functions on poetic structures—the associative leap, the volta, and language (in particular, dialogue) as the initiator of memory and narrative—“Milk for Free” is a useful teaching tool in both poetry and prose classrooms. I can imagine, for example, a poetry teacher using this essay as an introduction to poetic forms, especially for writers coming from a prose background, or a prose teacher using this essay to demonstrate the success of poetic moves in narrative prose. In either case, the creative writing instructor can use “Milk for Free” as a model for writing exercises that ask the student to 1) list dialogue repeated in their childhood and then use that language to begin or interrupt their work, or 2) attempt a work that begins with euphemism and ends with naming.

“Milk for Free” also has relevance beyond the creative writing classroom, particularly for studies of gender, race, class, and/or intersectionality. The characters presented in this nonfiction essay, because they are real people, are useful examples of how identities can layer into composite injustice in America. Philyaw’s friend Cyprana, for example, gets money from the grown men who come to her house for sexual favors “while her mother was at work” and “sometimes she gave some of it [the money] to her mother.” The acknowledgement that Cyprana gives the money to her mother, though she is only in sixth grade, suggests that Cyprana lives in a low-income space, where children participate in earning money for the family. And though Cyprana’s race is never explicitly identified, she explains the “white stuff” on the couch to her mother as “curl activator,” which places Cyprana among the hair product culture of black and brown women. If a secondary or higher education teacher were so inclined, they could assign “Milk for Free” as a model and then ask students to consider two or more of their own identities and how they overlap, writing a reflection on how they do.

In the end, “Milk for Free” vibrates with an echo on its final lines: “There’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing we can do.” I wonder, who is the “we”? Who can’t do anything? Is it all of us, stuck in heavy systems that direct our lives, or is it more specific, the low-income black and brown women facing commodification of their bodies? There is, perhaps, a tinge of hope if the “we” is the latter, as it leaves open the possibility that everyone else—men, white people, people of money—have power to end the oppression. Perhaps this final question is the most stimulating for the classroom, opening up larger questions about justice and imaginative reform. Perhaps it will lead your students to find an answer for all of us.
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Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from the Piedmont Plateau of Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She seeks honest representations of lived experiences in her work, which ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. She is currently an assistant editor for Brevity.

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THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.

§ One Response to Teaching Brevity: Deesha Philyaw’s “Milk for Free”

  • Thank you for sharing

    On Tue, May 18, 2021, 4:34 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Guest Blogger posted: ” By Emily Dillon When The Best of Brevity launched > on the East Coast in November 2020, Deesha Philyaw was one of three authors > to participate in its inaugural reading, alongside Lori Jakiela and Julie > Hakim Azzam. I was not familiar with Philyaw’s ” >

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